Fleas are the most common external parasite to affect cats. There are many species of fleas, however, Ctenocephalides felis most commonly infects cats. Its distribution is worldwide, although they are most prevalent in warmer climates. Fleas are not just a nuisance to the cat and pet owner, they are able to transmit several diseases to cats, this is known as vector-borne, which refers to any disease transmitted by a blood sucking arthropod (such as a flea or tick).
Common diseases passed from fleas to cat include:
Cat Scratch Disease
Feline Infectious Anemia
Fleas act as the intermediate host, meaning they become infected when they feed on an infected host, they then transmit the infectious agent to the cat via the saliva, feces, regurgitation of infected blood (plague) or ingesting an infected flea (tapeworm).
How do cats become infected with fleas?
Only 5% of fleas actually live on their cat, the rest of the time the flea (in its various life stages of egg, larvae, pupae and adult) lives in the environment. They can be found in all the crevices of a home as well as outside. Cats become infected when a flea from the environment (or another pet) jumps onto the cat.
Tapeworm is a parasitic flatworm which lives in the cat’s intestines. Dipylidium canium is the most common tapeworm to affect cats. Flea larvae consume egg capsules containing eggs, once inside the flea larvae they hatch into tapeworm embryos which invade the larval flea body. The flea larvae mature into an adult flea which jumps onto your cat and feeds. Some fleas are consumed by the cat during biting (of itchy skin) or grooming. Once inside the cat, the ingested flea breaks down and the tapeworm is released. Tapeworms attach to the intestinal wall, feeding off the partly digested food the cat has eaten.
Not all cats with tapeworm(s) will show signs of sickness. When they do, it is usually due to the worm competing with your cat for nutrients.
Symptoms of tapeworm include rice-like grains in your cat’s feces, anal scooting and a severe infestation can cause weight loss and a ragged appearance to the cat’s coat.
Tapeworms are treated with anti-worming medication.
The plague is an important disease as it is zoonotic (transmissible from cat to human). Caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, the plague comes in three clinical forms: bubonic which infects lymph nodes and is the least severe form, septicaemic which is an infection of the blood and the most severe form, pneumonic infection of the lungs. Fleas are the intermediate host, they ingest the bacteria when feeding on an infected host (commonly a rat), the disease is then transmitted to the cat when the flea attempts to feed on the cat and regurgitates infected blood into the cat.
Symptoms vary depending on the form of plague your cat has but may include anorexia, fever, swollen and ulcerated lymph nodes (bubonic), coughing and sneezing (pneumonic).
Treatment of plague is antibiotics. Isolation is required during treatment due to the high risk of transmission. All cases of plague in cats must be reported to the relevant authorities.
Tularemia is a rare zoonotic disease caused by the bacteria Francisella tularensis. Infection can occur via inhalation from contaminated soil, drinking contaminated water, eating an infected animal, tick, fly or flea bites.
The route of exposure determines the organs affected and the symptoms but may include fever, anorexia, ulcers, swollen lymph nodes, conjunctivitis, and difficulty breathing. Disease from flea bites causes the ulcerative form of this disease.
Caused by an unusual bacteria known as mycoplasma which has no cell wall, there are two species which can infect cats ‘mycoplasma haemofelis and mycoplasma haemominutum’. The bacteria attaches to the wall of red blood cells. The immune system tries to destroy the parasites, but in the process also kills the affected red blood cells which leads to anemia (low red blood cell count). Infection is usually via the bite of a flea, although mothers can also pass the infection on to their kittens.
Symptoms relate to anemia and can include weakness, lethargy, pale gums, weight loss, jaundice, fever, enlarged lymph nodes, and spleen. Untreated, FIA can cause death.
Treatment is antibiotics and blood transfusion for severely anemic cats.
Caused by the bacteria Bartonella henslae, cat scratch disease (CSD) is a self-limiting infection in cats. It is transmitted via flea feces which contain the bacteria, which are ingested by the cat during grooming. While CSD is of little significance to the cat, it can cause disease in humans. In immuno-competent people this may include loss of appetite, fever, aching and headache, however in individuals with a compromised immune system it can cause more serious illness such as inflammation in the retina, encephalitis, conjunctivitis and enlarged liver or spleen.
Treatment in healthy cats and people is usually not necessary, severe cases of those with compromised immune systems may require antibiotics.
Also known as ‘cat flea typhus’, rickettsia is another zoonotic disease caused by an intracellular bacteria known as Rickettsia felis. Fleas acquire the bacteria when feeding on an infected mammal and then transmit the disease to cats when they scratch infected flea feces into their skin (usually via an itchy flea bite).
Cats usually remain asymptomatic however people, particularly those who have weakened immune systems can develop a headache, fever, confusion and a rash.
There is no protocol for treating rickettsia in cats, infected people are treated with antibiotics.
A heavy infestation of fleas, particularly in young kittens can lead to anemia, which is a reduced red blood cell count. Serious anemia can be life threatening.
Symptoms of anemia include lethargy, weakness, pale mucus membranes, rapid heart beat.
Treatment of anemia in cats involves removing the fleas and in severe cases a blood transfusion may be required.
Flea facts and stats
How long can fleas live off the cat?
This depends on the life stage of the flea. An adult flea can only survive a few days without a blood feed however the pupae can live for up to five months.
Are fleas the same as nits?
No, nits are the eggs of the head louse, which is a different parasite to the flea. Head lice infect people (mostly children), and cat fleas infect cats and dogs. They can sometimes feed off a human host, but won’t stick around for long.
My cat has scabs but no fleas:
Some cats can be extremely sensitive to the saliva of the flea and even one flea bite is enough to cause an allergic reaction resulting in scabs and intense itching.
My cat is foaming at the mouth after a flea treatment:
If your cat accidentally licks the flea product it is possible for him to foam at the mouth. If in any doubt, call your veterinarian or your local poisons hotline with the name of the flea product.
Can humans catch fleas from a cat?
As stated above, it is possible for a cat flea to bite a human, but they don’t live on us.
Can you treat a pregnant cat for fleas?
Yes, there are some topical flea treatments that are safe to use on pregnant cats. This includes Advantage, Frontline, and Revolution. Always speak to your veterinarian before treating a pregnant cat for fleas.
Can indoor cats catch fleas?
It is possible for indoor cats to catch fleas. Adult fleas can hitch a ride in on a person’s clothing. It is also possible for the flea pupae to remain dormant for up to six months if there is no host.
Can cats catch fleas in winter?
Cats can become infected with fleas year round, they are more active in the summer months, but certainly around in winter. Cats should be treated for fleas year round.